Blu-ray Review: The Bostonians (1984)

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Still picking up the pieces of his life after the end of the Civil War, Mississippi lawyer — and Clark Gable doppelganger — Basil Ransom (Christopher Reeve) decides to trade in the south for the north by visiting his distant cousin Olive Chancellor (Vanessa Redgrave) in late 19th century Back Bay Boston.

A fish out of water who will soon find himself in the middle of an unusual love triangle in Henry James' dramedy of manners, the sly chauvinist and his feminist cousin get mutually struck by the same thunderbolt when that evening's women's rights activist in training, Verena Tarrant (Madeleine Potter) begins to speak.

The daughter of a lead pencil vendor turned mesmeric healer, although Verena's speech about giving women the chance to run the world alarms Basil and delights Olive, both are taken in immediately by the younger woman's guileless nature and beauty.

Though each hopes to win her heart, following cultural norms they must do so differently, which gives Basil the distinct advantage of being able to declare his intentions to Verena out right, whereas Olive — who cloaks her true feelings vows of friendship and shared philosophy — doesn't have the same luxury.

Courting her intellectually, Olive devotes all of her time, energy, and resources to winning and keeping Verena's friendship, including bribing her father with $5,000 a year to keep her family away. And once she moves the younger woman into her home in what Henry James would have called a "Boston marriage," it's clear that now Olive and not Basil has the upper hand.

Getting Verena to swear an oath that she'll never marry because, Olive warns her, all men want is to tame her at the exact same time that Basil steps up his seductive approach, it doesn't take long for Verena to become confused about her future and decide just what it is she truly wants.

Satirizing women's rights as well as his sister Alice's own "Boston marriage" in the titular novel, over time it seems that James changed his mind about what he'd written The Bostonians to the point that he didn't even include it in his collected works when he began releasing them around the turn of the century. And without rejecting the original material completely, longtime Merchant Ivory screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala infuses her script for The Bostonians storyline with much more humanity and warmth than is found on the page.

Understanding that when you're in love, you often cannot see the forest for the trees, Prawer Jhabvala gives the film's peripheral characters some of the script's sharpest insights and payoffs regarding what might be in store for our trio by foreshadowing the heartbreak to come.

Handled with care by director James Ivory, from a discussion had while sensually washing up to heightening Olive and Verena's bond in matching costumes, the Oscar nominated Bostonians uses subtext to speak volumes.

Frequently serving as a mirror to reflect back the image and person (either Olive or Basil) who's put in front of her, while Verena remains an enigma throughout, it's nonetheless fitting to think that despite their differences, the two cousins are more alike than one might think.

Heightened by the performances and James Ivory's assured direction, although at times the flawed yet fascinating film holds us at an arm's length from the events as they unfold, it does its best to let us in whenever it lets its characters out of their small cramped rooms and gives everyone a chance to breathe.

Just in time for Pride month, the Cohen Film Collection reintroduces us to the overlooked Bostonians in a gorgeously restored edition featuring a handful of eye-opening new interviews with James Ivory (who discusses the film as well as its place alongside other Henry James adaptations and LGBTQ productions he's made throughout his career), for this, the film's thirty-fifth anniversary release.

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